This month we ended our time serving with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as coordinators of the Refugee Project in the Mennonite Church of Quito, Ecuador. And, with this final reflection, we also close out our blog. Thanks for reading along!
For the past two years we have worked with persons forced mainly from Colombia by violence and direct threats. We also traveled on numerous occasions to various parts of Colombia with MCC to deepen our understanding of the conflict and meet with local communities working for peace and resisting displacement.
In the Refugee Project we sought simply to be there when the refugees arrived, to be witnesses of hospitality—and to respond to their questions and needs best we could with the limited resources we had.
Just a few weeks before our departure we hosted a colleague to evaluate our work and to provide observations and suggestions to help the Mennonite Church guide their proposal to continue the Refugee Project. She spoke with us, church members, representatives of partner organizations and, most importantly, refugees.
On a personal level the visit afforded us an opportunity to reflect on our work.
For us, guiding questions for our work had been: How are we living out the Gospel holistically? What does it mean to be a welcoming community? While providing basic material support how are we responding to the emotional and spiritual needs in a way respectful of one’s freedom and dignity?
During her visit the evaluator asked us an intriguing question: When are the moments when you feel most alive and engaged in your work? We felt most animated when we were relating with the refugees as people, not just as recipients of aid. We felt most alive when we opened up spaces that built community and celebrated holidays and life’s moments, such as birthdays, weddings and baby showers. The evaluator shared that the refugees she interviewed responded very much in the same way. “We feel like humans, not numbers,” one refugee said. “We receive spiritual nourishment,” said another. And another added that the church is a “safe space where we can let down our guard.”
The evaluation affirmed our perspective that accompanying displaced people in a holistic way means providing for both their physical and emotional/spiritual needs while also respecting their dignity, freedom and agency, considering that the traumatic experience of being forcibly uprooted from one’s home can create a sense of loss of control.
As we transition out of our roles and the Mennonite Church continues driving the work of the Refugee Project, larger transitions loom ahead. Recently, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a bi-lateral ceasefire making a peace agreement all the more likely. What impact will this development have on the flow of refugees into Ecuador? Will Ecuador’s policy toward refugees change? Will NGOs remain or will they leave? These are important questions for the Mennonite Church in Quito as they continue to discern their ministry to forced migrants.
We are profoundly grateful for having had the privilege to serve with MCC and to accompany refugees in Ecuador. More than just an experience, the work planted deep into the soil of our hearts the seeds for an ongoing commitment to walk alongside the dispossessed, the marginalized, the peacemakers and the blessed, wherever we find ourselves called.
Leaving is never easy, but the transition is made easier by the memories made and the friendships formed, and by the hope of meeting again.
Throughout our time in Ecuador and Colombia, a quotation from Henri Nouwen’s book ¡Gracias! accompanied us:
“Whatever my experience in Latin America will bring to me, it will be a part of my body formed in love and will reverberate in all its members.”
¡Muchas gracias a todas y todos!
Tibrine & David